Tuesday, November 15, 2011
AFC North Stock Watch
By Jamison Hensley
1. Ray Rice's impact. The Ravens running back has been averaging 12.3 carries the past four games, including a season-low five on Sunday. Rice's decrease in carries came right after he ran 25 times in a win over the Jets and 23 times in a victory over the Texans. Rice is a threat to break any run for a touchdown, which everyone saw on his first carry against Pittsburgh two weeks ago (a 76-yard run was called back for holding). Baltimore showed a commitment to the running back when it made Vonta Leach the league's highest-paid fullback. Not using Rice is mind-boggling.
2. Browns' scoring at home. Remember Ben Watson's 10-yard touchdown catch against the Titans? Well, you should. That was the last time the Browns scored at home. It happened in the fourth quarter on Oct. 2. Cleveland has gone the past two home games without reaching the end zone. That's eight straight quarters. The touchdown drought at Cleveland Browns Stadium has reached 131 minutes, 36 seconds. The Browns play at home against Jacksonville on Sunday.
3. Special teams for Browns and Ravens. In two losses by a combined six points, these two AFC North teams combined for three missed field goals and three fumbles on return teams. The Ravens watched kickoff returner David Reed fumble twice in the first half (a total of three times in two weeks) and kicker Billy Cundiff miss from 50 and 52 yards. The Browns lost their game against Seattle when they botched the snap on a 22-yard field goal. In the fourth quarter, Josh Cribbs fumbled a punt return that led to the Rams' go-ahead field goal.
Opposing defenses are honing in on Pittsburgh's newest go-to receiver this season, Antonio Brown.
1. Steelers' fourth-quarter turnovers. Taking the ball away from teams has been one of the biggest disappointments with the Pittsburgh defense. But there are signs that the Steelers are getting back on track as far as turnovers. In its past two games, Pittsburgh has forced three turnovers in the fourth quarter. Against Baltimore, James Harrison's forced fumble set up the go-ahead touchdown. Against Cincinnati, William Gay deflected one pass (which led to an interception) and picked off another throw to seal the win. All three of those turnovers came in Pittsburgh territory.
2. Bengals pass rush. Cincinnati isn't a heavy blitzing team, but the defense -- especially the front four -- keeps getting to quarterbacks. The Bengals have recorded 11 sacks the past two weeks. It was impressive that Cincinnati sacked Ben Roethlisberger five times, which matched his season-worst, because the Bengals were without their best pass rusher, Carlos Dunlap. The Bengals have 25 sacks this season, which is eighth-best in the NFL.
3. Steelers wide receiver Antonio Brown. Defenses have more to worry about than just covering Mike Wallace these days. Brown is establishing himself as a go-to receiver downfield for Pittsburgh. He's emerged at a time when Hines Ward and Emmanuel Sanders have been banged up. Over the past four games, Brown is averaging 6.5 catches and 91 yards receiving. His receptions on Sunday converted two third downs and went for 12, 15, 17, 21 and 21 yards.